The Best and the Brightest opens with Samantha Jasinski (Bonnie Sommerville) steering her husband Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris), her daughter Beatrice (Amelia Talbot), and a packed U-Haul from Delaware into the heart of Manhattan. Gently chided by the low-key wit Jeff about her driving (“I think Beatrice should live long enough to see a white President”), Samantha is barely available: she’s thoroughly in the thrall of the towering glass-and-steel monoliths of New York City, gazing with unrestrained awe at the magnificent metropolis she’s moving to, and director Josh Shelov’s camera gazes with the same clear-eyed emotion.
The opening act of the film is beset by slow-tracking panoramas of the Manhattan skyline, shots which often replace (erase?) the characters’ faces as they speak. It’s a location that overpowers, overmasters, overwhelms, and this is a film that never forgets that.
The Yale-educated Shelov’s baudy little farce focusing on America’s firmly-entrenched upper crust is about just that, the mingled feeling of yearning, wonder, and isolation that descends upon hopeful new residents of an urban mecca whose finest features are neither built by or for people like them. It’s also concerned with the people that such meccas were built for and by, the privileged elite, and how their advantages win them considerable leeway for practices of unrestrained moral turpitude. And, more than anything, it’s about the wonderstruck residents who, denied a slice of that decadent pie on the high windowsill, reach and stretch, like an eager child on its tiptoes, for the smallest taste, if not for themselves then for their own children at least.
“There’s that strive,” says Sue Lemon (Amy Sedaris) to blond ex-cheerleader Sam, definitely the striver of the young couple. Sue, you see, is a consultant who advises such upwardly-striving parents on how to get their children admitted to Manhattan’s prestigious and exclusive private schools, and the Jasinskis need her help enough to pay for it. Sam and Jeff, with slightly exaggerated Delawarean naiveté, want to get Beatrice into just such a school for the start of her kindergarten year, which would commence in a matter of weeks.
As Sam learns from a series of progressively more alarming school visits, however, they might be starting their search a bit too late to overcome the multi-year waiting list: at one open house, all of the other mothers in the room are pregnant and seeking advanced admission for their unborn children. With nary a pause to consider their lack of parental awareness or basic online research skills, the script (by Shelov and Michael Jaeger) launches Sam and Jeff (enabled by Sue) into an increasingly elaborate and deceitful scheme to grab that coveted private school spot for their daughter, as well as some vicarious remnant of the American Dream for themselves.
Sue manages to finagle them an admission interview with the irreducibly prim Katharine Heilmann (Jenna Stern) of the stentorian Coventry Day School by pretending that the unimaginative computer programmer Jeff is a soon-to-be-published poet. Through a series of misunderstandings, purposeful ruses, and raging vendettas, the sexually-explicit instant messages sent by Clark (Peter Serafinowicz), Jeff’s dissolute rich-kid college buddy, to various female conquests are mistaken as his avant-garde poetry, the school’s board of directors becomes interested in Jeff and his “work”, and the Jasinskis, purportedly maintaining the subterfuge for their daughter’s sake, receive a sizable and not-entirely-delicious taste of that forbidden pie they’ve been eagerly reaching for.
Shelov’s film critiques the moral bankruptcy and foppish cluelessness of America’s self-involved elites with considerable satiric bite, but wants for a tad more consistency, if anything. Sommerville and Harris are essentially the straight men, the “regular people” amidst the aristocratic chaos. This arrangement suits the fresh and wide-eyed Sommerville well enough, but Harris’ comic abilities are less adapted to such restraints, even if he suggests (in an interview included in the special features) that he saw the role as a respite from his wild ladies’ man persona on How I Met Your Mother.
Fortunately, the edgy, libidinous beat poet image that is foisted upon Jeff very much matches up with the simmering zaniness that Harris cultivates beneath his still-boyish exterior. This is especially effective at the film’s climax, when Jeff is compelled to perform a live “improv” original (reading real-time texts from Clark) for a sophisticated political fundraiser audience. Harris’ dialed-back deadpan delivery of lines like “You see, I get the two confused / your ass and you” makes them sing with something resembling left-field comic poetry.
Although Sommerville and Harris work well enough in isolation, they’re lacking some chemistry as an onscreen couple. This is, perhaps, the point, as per Shelov and Jaeger’s very sober and adult take on their relationship: Sam, to some extent, settled for the decent, unremarkable Jeff when her jock boyfriend balked at marriage, and that mild, underlying tension and dissatisfaction with her resulting status level has motivated her plan to move to New York and get her daughter into a school like Coventry Day. We are also not given much of an impression of Beatrice as anything but a cute, occasionally clever kid, nor of the Jasinskis as parents, another possibly purposeful angle from the filmmakers suggesting that the cutthroat scuffling over kindergarten spots is more about the parents’ social status than the child’s education.
Of course, Sommerville and Harris are meant to be foils for the cast of whacked-out comic exaggerations around them. The hyper-expressive Sedaris takes up the challenge early on, mugging her way through a succession of rompers, overalls, and even a New Kids on the Block t-shirt before reverting to the role of a wine-quaffing babysitter as the film progresses. Stern’s Katharine is her evident opposite, a stereotypically repressed professional woman whose roiling sexual frustration is bound as tightly on the inside as her taut bun of red hair is bound on the outside. Aroused by Jeff’s ostensible filthy poetry and thus further betrayed when she discovers it’s a hoax, Katharine becomes the hopeful parents’ committed antagonist and the closest thing that The Best and the Brightest has to a genuine villain.
The movie gets wackier but infinitely less interesting as these two characters are gradually marginalized by the plot, which shifts the persuasive onus for the Jasinskis’ quest onto the school’s board of wealthy benefactors. In addition to a NPR-ish, over-educated square (an amusing cameo for The Daily Show’s John Hodgman) who provides pretentious literary analysis of lines like “I want it now, bitch / so clean yourself up”, this meddling board also features thinly-veiled caricatures of the Clintons. The Hillary proxy is a sharp-tongued ball-buster who could only really be played by Star Trek: Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew, while the ever-reliable Christopher McDonald is a version of Bill, a smooth, hyper-sexed chatterbox known only as The Player.
The latter goes miles over the top, spouting politically incorrect comments, nicknaming everyone in sight, and even grind-dancing in a swingers’ club clad only in a pair of towels at one point. McDonald is, as ever, an avid salesman, although his all-in approach doesn’t always work in this film. But as The Best and the Brightest’s purest patrician-conservative distillation of the irresponsible self-involvement of the rich and powerful, the Player and his wife are the truest instruments of Shelov’s critique of America’s vaunted elites.
In the film’s closing sequence, Mrs. Player gives a speech in a Manhattan park that renders palpable the ideology of income-based discrimination that was merely implied elsewhere in the film. Mulgrew relishes the snobbish Republican rhetoric of class-based privilege: “In my administration, rest assured, only those who have earned their rightful place in society will be extended the full measure of human rights.” Shelov’s film may poke fun at its social superiors and allow its plucky middle-class protagonists a small share of the best that America has to offer, but it also never lets you forget that these small gains are nothing but the wish fulfillment of a comic fantasy.